This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the
author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or
dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Con Riley
AIDEN DALY slumped behind his too-small desk in the far corner of his carton-strewn clothing store stockroom, and rested his head in his hands. A hesitant knock, followed by the creak of the slowly opening door that led into the store, made him lurch upright. He shoved the envelope he’d been staring at for the last twenty minutes under some papers as his store clerk, Levi, peered through the narrow gap in the doorway.
“B-Boss? Mr. Daly, sir? I know you said not to disturb you, but….” The door creaked again as Levi shouldered his way into the stockroom, sliding sideways through a gap almost too narrow for his slight frame. He passed between cartons draped with the latest consignment of clothing to arrive from Europe, his fingers automatically straightening crumpled fabric and smoothing wrinkles as he sidled closer. His tongue—a small pierced pink dart of movement—wet his lips nervously.
Aiden scrubbed his face, the rasp of his fingers against dark stubble sounding loud in the long stretch of silence as he waited for Levi to continue.
“But what?” Aiden finally prompted.
“I-I’m sorry?” Levi stuttered.
Aiden lowered his hands and tilted his head to one side as he watched his employee try to order his thoughts. Inwardly, he counted to ten before reminding Levi of what he’d started to say.
“Did you come in to tell me something important, Levi?” On any other day Aiden would have so much more tolerance. But today, after taking delivery of yet another expensive and incorrect consignment of clothing from Europe, he’d already exhausted all his patience.
Maybe his housemate, Marco, had been right.
Perhaps some people weren’t cut out for business.
Aiden’s late father, David Daly, had known everything about business—every single thing. Aiden had spent the morning wishing he could ask his dad for help, even though that made him feel uncomfortably like a kid of seventeen rather than a grown man of nearly twenty-seven. He caught a glimpse of his own drawn face reflected in his darkened PC screen, and how unprofessional looking dragging his hands through his curly dark-brown hair had left him. Perhaps it was a blessing that his dad would never see the way Aiden ran his own business.
It was a sign of his stress level that he took his bad mood out on the closest person to him at that moment. “Should I be sitting here waiting for you to explain, Levi? Or should I be out front guarding the cash register that you’ve left unattended?”
The darkening stain of a hot-looking flush crept up Levi’s throat as he backed toward the door, his haste causing him to hip-check cartons that began to tilt and teeter. Levi’s gasp, and muffled “shit” as he tried to stop boxes from falling, made Aiden feel like a real asshole. He hadn’t meant to scare the kid. He was tired, that was all. Tired of consignments arriving containing stock he couldn’t sell, and so tired of adding up cash-register receipts that lately refused to tally. He hadn’t slept well the night before—hell, he hadn’t slept well for months—and he’d gotten out of his borrowed bed that morning, in the place he was house-sitting as a favor for his friend Peter, already worn out and cranky.
None of that was his clerk’s fault. He watched Levi sweep straight black bangs from his eyes and draw himself up to his full five foot six before speaking again.
“I would never leave the register unattended, Mr. Daly. Your brother’s here. He asked me to come tell you—” He shook his head quickly. “No, that’s not it exactly. He said that you should take a look at the store security cameras.”
Aiden grudgingly powered up his PC. The screen filled with eight closed-circuit television frames revealing different aspects of the store and the customers who picked through neat stacks of clothing. Today, instead of feeling grateful every time a new patron crossed the threshold, he’d glowered as they unfurled all his neatly displayed fall merchandise. He’d felt his temper rising, so he’d turned off the PC. Last night he’d wished for a way to turn off his housemate, Marco, too when he’d told Aiden how lousy his security camera setup was. Now his brother Evan was here to talk about the same thing? Marco—fucking Marco—really couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
He studied the camera feeds, only vaguely aware of Levi shuffling closer as he leaned across the paper-covered desk. Levi’s “There, see?” was a breathy whisper Aiden felt against his cheek. Aiden peered at the screen, squinting, trying to locate his brother among the shadowy flickers on the screen.
“Do you see him?”
Aiden shook his head and then caught Levi as the palm his clerk had braced himself with suddenly slipped out from under him.
Levi looked down at what had broken his fall. Aiden’s huge hand was spread wide, supporting his ribcage, easily bearing his weight. Levi’s “Wow” was another breathless whisper followed by a louder “Oh God, I’m so sorry” as neatly piled register receipts toppled.
This time, Aiden counted to twenty.
By the time Aiden had scooped up the fallen papers, Levi was around his side of the desk. There was barely enough room there for all six foot six inches of Aiden, let alone another person, but Levi’s sudden yelp of “There, see? See!” made Aiden push his chair back so Levi could get a little closer. They both watched the black and white display as Aiden toggled the controller, zooming in until the image of one man filled the screen.
Evan’s arms-crossed stance was familiar, as was the way he flicked his pale blond bangs from his eyes in agitation, reminding Aiden strongly of the day he’d first met his adoptive brother. Aiden had been sixteen years old compared to Evan’s eleven, but Evan had bossed him around from the get-go. Ten years ago, Aiden hadn’t wanted to go to his old group home summer picnic. Revisiting the last place he’d lived before getting adopted had made him feel weird inside. But when his dad explained that Aiden was nearly grown, and his mom had been losing sleep about having no one to mother, Aiden had grudgingly agreed—shamed into tagging along.
His dad had looked at him in the rearview mirror on the way to the home and said, “We can deal another kid into our game, can’t we, son? It’ll be fun. Just you wait and see.”
Aiden hadn’t thought so. He’d been only weeks away from his sixteenth birthday. Why the hell would he have wanted a kid brother or sister? His dad had said variations of “two kids are better than one” so many times in the week leading up to the picnic that Aiden had gotten sick of hearing it. He’d hated the idea of going back there, but he’d hated the idea of upsetting his mom and dad even more so.
He owed them, and he knew it.
Once there, his mom had knelt beside a little girl in the big backyard, threading daisies into chains as they chatted, and his dad had talked with the home’s director, ignoring Aiden’s sullen teenage sulking.
The group home hadn’t been a bad place to live for a while, but moody or not, Aiden still counted his blessings that he’d been adopted when he was young. So he found it weird how the kid who sat opposite him at a picnic table had ignored all the prospective parents who tried to start up a conversation. He’d guessed that the irritable-looking kid—small, skinny, and angular, with a fall of straight, light-blond hair covering his eyes—must really like it at the home. He hadn’t even tried to make nice with any of the name-badge-wearing visitors looking for children to adopt.
Aiden had watched him glower, and had rolled his eyes.
Evan had noticed Aiden’s eye roll. He’d waited until Aiden was stuffing his face with a hot dog, then asked, “What do you think you’re looking at?”
He’d sounded so snippy that Aiden had been surly in return. He’d swallowed his food and replied, “At a dumb kid with stupid-looking hair.” He’d felt bad right away. The kid had glared across the table at him through his too-long bangs. He’d been half Aiden’s size, but had been ready to punch him—Aiden could see it coming. He’d watched Evan pull back his scrawny arm to swing. The punch hadn’t landed. Evan had grabbed one of Aiden’s curls instead and had pulled it out straight. It had corkscrewed as he released it, and Evan had burst out laughing. His amused “Look in the mirror, dumbass” had been quiet when everyone had turned to look their way, but Aiden had heard the good humor hidden behind a quickly resumed frown.
He’d spent the rest of the picnic watching as Evan scowled and glared, scaring away any of the interested adults. His actions had baffled Aiden—why would anyone want to stay in a group home? Maybe he’d responded thoughtlessly when the smaller kid defensively asked, “Now what are you looking at?” He hadn’t intended to make him reel away as if Aiden had actually punched him. Aiden had only answered Evan’s question by telling the truth as he saw it: “At someone who doesn’t want a family.”
His dad had brought over some people who wanted to hear what getting adopted had been like for Aiden, so he’d done his best to answer all their questions, when all he’d really wanted was to find the kid and say sorry. Standing close by, his dad had rested his hand firmly on Aiden’s shoulder, so Aiden had sat tight and had done his best to do his duty.
Later, he’d toured the inside of the home with his parents. The bedrooms were smaller than Aiden had remembered—much cozier, with brighter furnishings and lots more artwork on the walls. He’d snooped a little, while his mom talked with kid after kid after kid.
He’d spent a long time looking at the wall by one bed. It was covered with a collage made up of pictures torn from magazines. When he’d stood back, he saw that each section of the wall was devoted to a room in a house. There had been lots of pictures featuring parents reading to their children, and kids’ bedrooms filled with toys. In a lower corner had been multiple images of backyards where swings hung from trees, just like the one his dad had fixed up for Aiden at home years before.
He’d been bent over, taking a closer look, when Evan had shoved him in the side, sending him to the floor. Aiden was over six feet tall at that point, but Evan—who was still small even now—had been tiny and fearless. He’d knelt on Aiden’s chest, had shaken his bone-white fist in his face, yelling that if Aiden touched his stuff again, he’d be sorry.
Aiden’s family left soon after, and on the way home he’d stared out the car window as his mom said how impossible it was to choose a child. It hadn’t seemed impossible to Aiden at all. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Evan’s red-rimmed ones, and the way his fist shook as he tried to protect the home he’d made on the wall next to his bed. Aiden hadn’t put too much thought into what he’d said next. He’d told his parents that he was pretty sure he’d already met his new brother. Then, when he asked if they could go get Evan right away, his mom had cried.
His dad had looked in the rearview mirror and smiled.
Ten years later, that all seemed like something from another lifetime. He looked at the grainy image of his brother on the PC screen and couldn’t imagine not having Evan in his life.
“Okay, so Evan’s here. Thanks for telling me, although I’m not sure why we needed to look at him on the store cameras.”
“Oh!” Levi sounded flustered. “He said you should focus the camera on the man he’s watching.”
“Why didn’t you say so right away?” Aiden tried to adjust the camera angle, cursing under his breath when he couldn’t quite see whomever it was that Evan had his eye on. “Do I need to get out there?” He shifted in his seat until Levi’s hand tentatively pressed down on his shoulder.
“No. Evan said to ask if you could see what was happening.”
Aiden adjusted the cameras again but still couldn’t quite see the whole store floor. “No,” he finally admitted. “He must be standing in a blind spot.” One of the blind spots he’d denied existed last night when Marco had stuck his nose into the way Aiden ran his business. A sudden movement caught his eye as someone stood much closer to his brother.
Even from behind it was clear that this guy was up to no good.
Aiden watched, his whole body tensing, as the man shook out jersey T-shirts and then dropped them on the floor. “What the—”
“I know!” Levi sounded excited. “I didn’t get a close look at him before Evan told me to get you to watch. I didn’t need to. The guy’s not even trying to hide what he’s doing.” He stumbled a little as he leaned closer to the screen, but caught himself this time by planting one hand on Aiden’s broad shoulder again. “See? Now your brother is right next to him, and he’s still doing it.”
Levi was right. Evan was next to the guy. The detail was so hard to make out. Aiden frowned, thinking that the camera system really was a piece of crap.
“Can you zoom out?” Levi urged him to hurry, resting his much smaller hand on top of Aiden’s on the CCTV controller. Aiden slipped his hand out from underneath. “Sorry,” Levi mumbled. He let go of the controller, clearly embarrassed. “I got a little carried away,” he explained. “This is exciting, like watching a show on TV. Are you gonna call the cops now?”
“For throwing T-shirts on the floor? Nope. I save calling the cops for people who steal from me. I will kick his ass if he doesn’t quit it, though.” They both watched as Evan backed out of the shot. Aiden pulled the camera back too, and as he added distance, the image sharpened—still not perfect, but a little better. For a still-warm, late-summer afternoon, this asshole of a customer sure was wearing a heavy overcoat. Aiden looked a little closer. From the ceiling-level perspective of the camera, Aiden saw light reflecting off glasses when the man glanced quickly over his shoulder.
“Motherfucker.” That quick, sneaky glance told Aiden everything he needed to know. If the customer hadn’t stolen yet, he was surely thinking about it. Aiden had seen it too many times over the last few years. At first he’d been saddened, and then later maddened by how prevalent store theft was. Add in the patrons who returned clothes on a Monday that they’d clearly worn over the weekend—smudged with makeup, stinking of cigarette smoke, or with the labels carelessly torn out—and his losses were a serious issue.
Aiden had so many financial commitments—too many—since his dad’s death. The thought of not meeting them and of failing to fulfill his late father’s final wishes because of thoughtless customers and theft, constantly drove him crazy. It meant he had to save cash in other areas, like letting the security camera system’s maintenance contract lapse.
The sudden creak of the stockroom door opening made them both jump, Levi more so than Aiden, who caught his clerk as he lost his footing. Aiden wrapped one big arm around Levi right as his clerk’s panicked grip tightened on Aiden’s shoulder. The chair rocked under their combined weight, hitting the back wall, jolting them both so that Levi ended up perched on Aiden’s lap, both arms around his neck.
Evan’s expression, as he stood in the doorway, didn’t look the slightest bit amused. He frowned as Levi got to his feet and hurried out, then repeated Levi’s earlier actions. He walked over and shoved his way close to the PC monitor, pointing at the guy now visibly arguing with Levi, who’d started refolding the T-shirts that had been thrown on the floor.
“This,” Evan said, pointing at the PC screen, “is what happens when you don’t pick up on signals.”
Aiden shook his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. If you mean Levi, there are no signals to pick up.”
“I don’t mean Levi, although you really can be so blind, Aiden. It’s obvious the kid has a crush on you.” He switched cameras, and a different view filled the screen. The new angle wasn’t perfect either, but Evan persisted until an open bag to one side of the man was just visible, a still-tagged shirtsleeve hanging from its opening.
Aiden was on his feet immediately, shoving his brother out of the way and heading for the door as Evan spoke again. Aiden heard Evan’s “He’s just trying to get your attention. He’s been trying for weeks, but you don’t pick up on his signals” and ignored him.
This was no time to talk about a kid with a stupid crush. He had a thief to catch.
In less than a minute, he was through the stockroom door. He glanced at Evan’s boyfriend, Joel, who stood near the register, and he frowned momentarily at Joel’s huge grin. Aiden had tried really hard lately to get along with the guy for his brother’s sake, but seeing him smile as Aiden’s stock was being stolen pissed him off. His strides to the rear of the store were fast and furious.
Levi was red-faced again, his arms full of crumpled shirts as Aiden pushed past him, grabbing the overcoat-wearing man’s shoulder. The coat sagged in his hand as its wearer slipped it off and ran, leaving his bag full of stolen shirts behind. That was something at least, Aiden thought as he spun, reaching out to stop the thief’s escape. But without the oversized overcoat, he was much smaller than Aiden, and slipped easily away in a flash of blurred motion.
The thief ran for the exit—fast—and Aiden yelled for Joel to stop him. Aiden added Joel doing nothing, apart from stifling laughter, to his list of reasons to dislike his brother’s boyfriend, and then he ran too.
It didn’t matter that the thief had left his stash of stolen shirts behind.
It didn’t matter that Levi yelled something that sounded like “Wait, it’s only Mar—”
All that mattered was catching him. He’d had a bad week after a difficult month, and his frustration at someone attempting to take what was his ignited Aiden’s temper.
Crowds of shoppers parted before Aiden like biblical waters as he ran, thundering along the mall concourse, past the food court where a group of pretty girls yelled and pointed toward the exit. Aiden put on an extra burst of speed, sliding some as he rounded a corner too fast, glimpsing his quarry as he slipped out the mall exit doors.
Aiden cursed as he ran outside, momentarily blinded by the bright afternoon sunlight of Seattle in August, its glare reflected by multiple windshields. The lot was full, and people were everywhere.
Puffing, hauling in huge breaths, he turned in a slow circle. Light reflecting on a pair of glasses caught his eye as someone looked over his shoulder before dashing into an underground parking lot entrance. He ran again, and soon caught up with the man, who darted between two parked trucks. Aiden lunged forward as the thief stumbled, and they fell in a tangled heap.
It took a moment for Aiden to get a grip on the man who was flat on his face underneath him. He might have been smaller, but he sure was feisty, wriggling and jerking until Aiden grabbed him by the shoulder and yanked him up on his knees. The last thing he expected was for the thief to burst out laughing.
Hearing his housemate’s familiar, infuriating laugh made Aiden curse again, roughly shoving him away, not caring when he yelped as he fell. Aiden sat back on his heels, stony faced and pissed off as Marco—fucking Marco Fortunato de Luca—rolled over, complaining in his husky Italian accent that Aiden had no sense of humor.
“I was only trying to help you, tesoro. Didn’t I tell you there were blind spots in your store camera setup?” He propped himself up on his elbows and peeled off his Mariners baseball cap, and then ran his hands through his sleek dark hair. Marco gave Aiden back the reading glasses that he’d used as part of his disguise. “You only caught me because I couldn’t see clearly.”
He grumbled all the way back to the store, where Aiden watched, arms crossed, expression thunderous, as Marco refolded all the shirts he’d managed to stuff into his bag before Evan and Levi had noticed what he’d been up to. He carried on grumbling as Aiden made him tidy the stock room too. Aiden tried to tune him out, but Marco was incessant, interrupting constantly as Aiden tried to concentrate on his columns of figures.
“See, this is why you need me, Aiden. You will not admit it, but you do.”
Aiden kept his head down.
He needed Marco like he needed another hole in his head.
Putting up with him and his ridiculous, excitable Italian ways was an unfortunate byproduct of sharing a house and sharing the same circle of friends, that was all. The sooner Marco went back to Milan, the better.
“You should relax more, Aiden. If you let me help you here, then you could let go a little. This work is too much for one person.” Marco went on and on and on. “Worry makes your handsome face ugly, which is a shame for everyone. I worry about your stress levels too. No wonder you get heartburn.”
Aiden bit his tongue. Marco had brought nothing but stress into his life for the whole month they’d lived together. Coming home every evening to someone who walked around the place half-naked, showing off his trim, tanned torso whatever the weather, and who thought nothing of climbing into his bed—talk to me, baby. I’ve been on my own all day—left Aiden in a constant state of…. He didn’t even know how to describe the inner turmoil that living with Marco provoked.
“But what is this?” Marco asked, his head buried in one of the open cartons, sounding suddenly delighted.
Aiden huffed, ignoring him, still angry that he’d wasted so much time chasing the infuriating Italian, who had nothing better to do than get on his nerves, all around the mall. He should start acting his age. Wasn’t he over thirty? Someone so compact and lazy shouldn’t be able to run so fucking fast. It wasn’t right. The only thing Marco ever exercised was his mouth.
“Is this another consignment of things you didn’t order, tesoro? Why won’t you let me help you when you make international deals? Or ask Morgan? Between the two of us, we speak enough languages to help you.” His voice lowered, and Aiden felt Marco’s hand on his thigh as he knelt at Aiden’s side. “Let us help you, yes? These translation mistakes could be avoided.” He removed his hand, leaving behind a scrap of pink, silky fabric—panties, ordered in error, expensive, and impossible for Aiden to return without losing money.
Aiden couldn’t look away, transfixed by Marco’s slim fingers as he smoothed out the fabric across Aiden’s wide thigh. Those fingers traced the swirls in the silky pattern slowly, making Aiden shiver.
“These are so beautiful, Aiden. Feel them. Touch them for yourself. Imagine how they would feel against your skin. It is a shame they aren’t your size.”
Aiden gritted his teeth and tried not to move a muscle. His housemate needed no encouragement. This much he’d learned already.
Marco sighed and stood again. He picked up the panties, fingering the lace that edged them.
“Maybe they weren’t a mistake.” He held them against his own narrow hips, made a small sound of approval, and then stuffed them into his pocket. “Perhaps I will model them for you after dinner.” He bent, pressed a kiss on Aiden’s cheek—another example of European behavior Aiden thought best to ignore completely—and walked away. Before he left the stockroom, he turned and asked, “Do you believe me now that you have blind spots in the store?”
Aiden grudgingly nodded.
“And do you agree that moving the cameras will help?”
He nodded again.
“I shall reposition them for you before I leave, yes?” Marco didn’t wait for Aiden to agree, but before the stockroom door creaked fully open, he added, “And you have another blind spot, Aiden. I watched your clerk closely this morning. Maybe you should look more closely at him too.” Marco paused, taking in the sudden shift in Aiden’s previously masklike expression before crossing quickly back to his desk. “I’m sorry. It is so sad when people let you down, I know.” He squeezed Aiden’s hand and then leaned over the desk, whispering, “I would never do that.” Marco lingered for a moment before walking away.
Aiden waited until Marco left and then typed a code into his PC that revealed the feed from the camera above the register. It only took a few minutes to speed through that morning’s footage. He watched as the recording approached the time that Marco had arrived at the store. He must have suspected right away what Aiden hadn’t even noticed. No wonder none of the receipts he added so carefully at the end of every day corresponded accurately to the register totals lately. Their discrepancies had frustrated him for the last few weeks.
His dad had always said that a good manager knew instinctively whom he could trust. He’d be so disappointed in Aiden’s lack of judgment.
He viewed the recording, feeling too sick and tired to be angry as he watched Levi fail to close the register fully after a transaction, quickly removing a handful of bills the moment the customer walked away. Aiden slowed the feed until he could watch, frame by slow-moving frame, as Levi pushed the cash into his pants pocket.
He should have noticed this shit himself. Instead, he’d been distracted by the envelope that still lay unopened on his desk, as it had for the last two weeks.
Aiden slumped behind his too-small desk in the far corner of his carton-strewn stockroom, and rested his head in his hands.